For this 7th Sunday of Easter on May 28, 2017, our worship texts are John 17:1-11 and Acts 1:6-14, the Ascension of Jesus.
I came across the story of Pastor John Harper here, and found Bishop Mike Rinehart’s exploration of the text very helpful. Here’s my sermon on Jesus’ Ascension for St. Peter Lutheran Church, Greene, Iowa.
My father is notorious for making random phone calls on the way home from work to share whatever he sees. He’ll notice something on the road, and feel the need to call and tell someone about it.
At home, he’s been waging war for years against the woodchucks living in the back yard, so every so often I get phone calls from Dad telling me he’s seen another woodchuck, or sharing how close he came to shooting one. Occasionally, he even actually hits one!
Maybe you know people who really like telling you what happened to them. I imagine all of us have had experiences where we see something and just have to tell someone about it. My wife will tell you I’ve picked up this trait from Dad of pointing out random, pointless things and feeling the need to tell someone about it.
There’s a word for this act of sharing what you’ve seen: witnessing. Literally, a witness is someone who tells what they have seen or experienced.
As Luke retells the story of Jesus’ ascension in the book of Acts, Jesus’ last words to the disciples are, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” You will be my witnesses. The very last command we have from Jesus is to witness, to tell the story of what’s happened to us.
Now, the language of “witnessing” in church carries some baggage. Often, we think of witnessing as trying to save people. I searched online for examples of witnessing, and I came across the story of John Harper. John Harper was a Baptist pastor on his way to preach at the Moody Church in Chicago in 1912.
On his way from Scotland, he happened to take passage on a brand new passenger ship, Titanic. As the ship sank, survivors reported his last words were yelling at people over and over asking them if they were saved.
That is a form of evangelism, and in a crisis like when your ship is sinking I’m sure God can work through that, but in most circumstances, it’s more off-putting than effective, and it’s not really witnessing. Witnessing is more about sharing how God has been active in your life and less about yelling at people.
Witnessing isn’t about saving people, because that’s not something you or I can do. Faith comes through the Holy Spirit, through God’s work. Salvation comes through Christ on the cross, not through anything you or I do or say.
But we do get to point people to God’s work by telling our stories. We get to tell about how the Holy Spirit has changed our lives. God works through our stories to connect other people with faith, to help others find hope and meaning in life.
Being a witness doesn’t need to be dramatic. You don’t need to have all the details right. Bishop Mike Rinehart puts it like this: “A witness simply testifies as to what they have seen and experienced. We are not called to convince, cajole, or arm-twist, but only to testify to our own experience, in word and deed.”
It sounds simple, yet Lutherans are notoriously bad at witnessing. Talking about God—especially outside church—feels risky.
What if someone has been hurt by a church or is angry at God? What if they think I’m some kind of religious nut and treat me differently? What if they think I’m judging them and get offended? What if they ask a question and I don’t know how to answer it?
So often we make witnessing far more complicated than it needs to be. You don’t have to have a dramatic conversion moment, or be a perfect example of faith. Being a witness simply means telling your story, and you know your story better than anyone else.
Every one of you decided to come to church today. Why? There’s a reason. If you put that reason into words, then you have a story to tell.
Mary Oliver has a wonderful poem called “Instructions for Living a Life.” It’s short, only 7 words.
Here it is: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
That’s really all there is to witnessing. First, pay attention. What’s happening in your life? What’s worth making a phone call to tell someone about? What’s your story?
Second, be astonished. Where do you see God? In your story, what is God’s role? How is God involved?
Third, tell about it. If you just stop with noticing God, you’re kind of like the disciples who stood there staring up toward heaven after Jesus ascended. The angels came and asked them, “Why are you just standing there?” As we train ourselves to better notice what God is doing, to recognize those “God-moments,” we realize we do have something to say. Don’t be afraid of sharing your experience.
Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That’s a collective you. He doesn’t say you personally must be a witness everywhere all at once! In fact, the places Jesus lists give a good outline for thinking about our witness together.
First, he tells the disciples to be witnesses in Jerusalem. This is their home turf. They know the people there. This is like sharing our stories with each other in church. This is what happens in small groups, like at lunch during quilting, or around fellowship tables, or in the conversation each week at men’s prayer breakfast.
The more we practice talking about God’s activity in our lives, the easier it becomes. If you’ve read the church newsletter this year, you’ve seen examples of witnessing from members of the church council. Each month, I’ve been asking someone to write a column sharing something of their own faith story, where they see God in their lives.
I haven’t called it witnessing because I didn’t want to scare anyone off, but that’s what it is. And we’ve had some great testimonies so far! Make sure you read Ashley Coake’s in this month’s newsletter.
Next, Jesus says we are his witnesses in Judea. Jerusalem was their immediate community; Judea is the wider region. How are we as individuals and as a congregation witnesses in Greene and Butler County?
Sometimes it’s religious things we say, like messages on the church sign, VBS, or occasional columns in the newspaper. Other times it’s more about our actions, like supporting the food pantry, offering space for community events, hosting a toe-nail clinic. How is God calling us to reach the community around us?
Third, Jesus doesn’t stop at Judea, he adds, “and Samaria.” This is the most interesting one, I think, because Samaria is not a popular place. Samaria is where those others live, the enemies. The dirty, rotten, no-good heretics, not the nice people like us. Good Jewish people like the disciples looked at Samaria and saw them as a lesser race, the other, people to be despised.
How do we engage and serve and love our enemies? How do we bless people who are different, sometimes very different from us? When people like Muslims or atheists look at the church and at Christians, do they see witnesses testifying to God’s love for them? Or do they see hate and fear?
How are we witnesses to people who will never set foot in our church? How do we witness to people of other political parties, or to people who’ve hurt us? Remember, when Jesus defined the idea of loving your neighbor, he used a Samaritan as the hero in his parable.
Finally, we are called to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Sometimes, this might mean sharing the gospel with someone in a far-away tribe who’s never heard of Jesus. But it’s not just that. How are we—as Lutheran Christians in Greene, Iowa—supporting people around the world? Some ways are through giving to our missionary, who gets to actually work on our behalf with a group of people we won’t meet in this life.
Most often, I think our witness around the world often looks like showing people that they’re not forgotten. It looks like showing the world that as part of the wealthiest country in the world, we’re putting our money where our mouth is by providing food and shelter for places where that’s needed.
One of the benefits of being part of a larger church is that we pool our resources to share God’s love together in ways we simply couldn’t do as individuals or a congregation. ELCA World Hunger is working in 62 countries. Other groups like Lutheran World Relief, Compassion, Food for the Poor, Feed My Starving Children, and Heifer Project work in even more.
As Jesus’ church, we are called to be witnesses. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.